Cooking the basics: Homemade marinara sauce

Marinara sauce, a classic Italian red sauce with garlic, onions, herbs, and not much more, is easy and weeknight-quick to make. 

Blue Kitchen
Everyone has their favorite brand of marinara sauce, but why not try making your own?

This post is about breaking old habits and overcoming fears. In our kitchen, both for the blog and for everyday cooking, we try to work with real ingredients as much as possible, not overly processed foods. (We do count certain canned and frozen goods as ingredients – beans, tomatoes, and spinach, for instance.) But for some reason, I’ve resisted making my own marinara sauce.

Partly, it’s because the idea has always intimidated me a little. I pictured Italian grandmothers, dressed in black, of course, crushing freshly peeled tomatoes by hand, adding countless ingredients and simmering the sauce for countless hours. Partly, though, if I’m being honest, it’s because I’ve always considered marinara (and other basic red sauces) fairly low on the Italian foods evolutionary scale. It’s what unsure tourists order at the Olive Garden. It’s how you introduce children to Italian cuisine. It’s what you throw together for a quick comfort-food dinner after a hectic day, starting with a jar of store-bought sauce that you doctor with additional ingredients. Or at least, that’s what I’ve done for far too long.

Turns out making homemade marinara sauce is easy – and about as quick as doctoring a jar of sauce. At its most basic, marinara sauce is an Italian tomato sauce made with garlic, onion, and herbs. You can start with the base sauce and customize it into many variations, depending on your mood or what’s in the fridge or pantry.

I had been sneaking up on the idea of making my own marinara sauce for a while, but what finally got me off the dime was an excellent piece on the Bon Appétit website outlining six common mistakes in making the basic sauce. Not only did it tell me what not to do, it made doing sound fairly straightforward and simple. So after looking at a few recipes (through Bon Appétit’s mistakes filter), I put together my own. It was indeed easy and quite good. I made mine adding some Italian sausage, and I used dried oregano. See Kitchen Notes for additional variations.

Homemade marinara sauce
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage (optional)
1 28-ounce can peeled whole Italian tomatoes (see Kitchen Notes)
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (also optional)
12 ounces dry pasta, cooked to package directions (I used spaghetti)

1. Heat a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-low flame. Swirl olive oil and butter together in pot until butter is melted and fats are combined. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and sweat, stirring frequently. After 5 minutes, add garlic and oregano (the fragrance will be wonderful). Cook for an additional 10 minutes, stirring frequently and lowering heat if necessary. You don’t want the aromatics to brown or burn; you just want the onion to be very soft.

2. If you’re adding sausage, brown it now in a separate skillet with a drizzle of olive oil over medium flame, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. You don’t want it crispy brown, just not pink. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and reserve.

3. When onions have softened, add tomatoes and their juices to the Dutch oven. Using a hand masher, break up the whole tomatoes. (You can crush them by hand in a bowl before starting to cook, if you prefer, but the masher is quicker and less messy – also, any juices you end up washing off your hands are juices that don’t end up in the sauce.) If you’ve cooked some sausage, add it to the pot now. Raise the heat and bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and partially cover.

4. Cook the sauce for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. About halfway through the process, remove it from the heat and, using an immersion blender, blend the sauce to the desired mix of smooth and chunky. Don’t overdo this – you want some texture and some chunks. If you don’t have an immersion blender, pulse (don’t purée) in a food processor. Resume cooking until the sauce is somewhat thickened.

5. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Time it so the pasta is a minute or two shy of al dente when the sauce is done. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to combine, adding pasta water a bit at a time if it seems dry. Cook for another minute or two to finish pasta and let it absorb some sauce.

6. Divide among four shallow pasta bowls and top with some Parmesan, if desired. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Variations on a theme. Add some sausage, as I did – mild, hot, you decide. Or crushed red pepper flakes if you like heat. Some recipes call for all kinds of vegetables – celery, carrots, or whatever’s in the fridge. Bon Appétit calls this a mistake. I agree, but it’s your sauce. You decide. And that said, we love adding frozen spinach to red sauce. A little wine is also a good but optional addition, either red or white. Use a light hand, though, or it will take over.

Dried herbs? Fresh? And which ones? You get lots of variation here too. Oregano and basil are popular favorites. If you’re using dry, add them with the onions as I did, so they can release their flavorful oils and soften. If you’re using fresh, add them at the very end – and add more, since dried are more powerful.

Use good tomatoes. These are the backbone of the sauce, so choose well. Whole, peeled, Italian canned tomatoes are the best bet. If you can find San Marzano plum tomatoes, those are considered the gold standard by many chefs.

Related post on Blue Kitchen: Falafel-crusted Potatoes with Red Sauce

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